One of my fondest memories from childhood is tuning into Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Each week, host Marlon Perkins and his sidekick Jim Fowler journeyed to Earth's most isolated hinterlands to deliver remarkable footage of all things wet or wild or wooly. Marlon was as famous for his deadpan, golf-announcer narration as Jim was his willingness to do absolutely insane things with animals. "And now I'll sit safely up here in the helicopter while Jim tranquilizes and wrestles a 600-pound Komodo dragon," Marlon might well have said.
These days, shows about animals abound on TV. Whereas I had to content myself with half-hour doses of Wild Kingdom (and maybe a bit of Curt Gowdy's American Sportsman on a good week), kids growing up today are really pretty spoiled, with entire cable channels such as Animal Planet, Discovery and National Geographic delivering similar content 24/7.
But even in such a crowded market for animal adoration, there's still room for a few big-screen tales of their exploits. And for the third year in a row, Disneynature is premiering exactly such a story to commemorate Earth Day. The first two films in the series, Earth and Oceans, span the globe. This one narrows the focus to two tribes of big cats: cheetahs and lions.
Kenyan Turf Wars
Filmed entirely in Kenya's stunning Masai Mara National Reserve, African Cats invites us to take an up-close-and-personal look at two very different feline families—and at the two mothers who are doing their best to make sure their cubs have what it takes to thrive in the expansive African savanna.
Layla is an aging, ailing lioness who's part of a pride ruled and protected by a similarly aging alpha male named Fang (so called because one of his teeth dangles from his drooling mouth for much of the movie). As long as the water in a river that cuts through their territory is high, life is good for Fang's family. But when it starts to dry up, danger from the "Northern Kingdom" lurks in the form of a rival lion who would be King Kali … and his four fearsome sons.
Layla, therefore, is determined to secure her cub Mara's place in the pride even if she's not around to teach and feed and protect her. So Layla tries to teach the young lioness all the necessary survival skills … while cultivating relationships Mara will need with aunts and cousins. But Layla's injuries from hunting, as well as increasingly bold raids by Kali and his sons, turn Layla's loving, last-ditch education into a race against time.
Single Mom on the Savanna
Over on Kali's side of the river, there's another drama taking place. A cheetah named Sita has her hands, er, paws full raising her newly born litter of five cubs.
Layla only has to keep a lion eye on one cub and has her pride's help when it comes to hunting. But Sita is absolutely on her own. Not only must she catch food for herself and her blind, ultra-dependent cubs, she must make sure that they're safely out of harm's way during the times she must be away from them.
Sita does her best, determined to protect her babies, facing down threats from other cheetahs, hyenas and even Kali's rogue band of lions. (Sometimes she succeeds. Sometimes she doesn't.) We also see her run. Like a furry version of Eric Liddell, that's what the world's fastest land animal was designed to do. And high-definition, slow-motion cinematography captures the glory of Sita's sleek, rippling, feline physique as it coils and releases explosively.
Fangs, Fur and Sacrifice
As was the case with both Earth and Oceans, the photography in African Cats is never short of breathtaking. You'd think that filmmakers Alastair Fothergill (who directed Earth) and Keith Scholey actually camped out with these cats, we see them so intimately. At full speed and in super slo-mo, the camera shows us these two families' fiercest moments as well as their most tender ones.
It's a beautiful portrait not only of the animals themselves, but also of the sacrificial nature of motherhood. The story here is adamantly anthropomorphic: Most of the cats have names, and we're invited to make a big emotional investment in the outcomes of their stories. Because of that, you can't help but marvel not only at the beauty and grandeur of these big cats, but also at these two mothers' tenacious determination to ensure that the next generation endures.
In all of this, Disneynature has gone to great lengths to make a film that's not only beautiful and inspiring, but suitable for almost every age. Why the emphasis on almost? Well. This is a documentary about wild beasts. And wild beasts must eat to survive.
One animal's gift is another's curse. And so Sita's majesty in motion soon spells certain doom for the Thomson's gazelle a half step in front of her. And perhaps a half dozen or so times, we watch as the lions stalk their chosen prey, from gazelles to zebras. Most of the time we don't glimpse the actual moment they sink their fangs into captured quarry. Once, though, a dying zebra twitches as Layla's pride moves in. And blood on their paws and snouts leaves no doubt that they've feasted, even if the footage isn't any more graphic than were those old Wild Kingdom episodes seen so long ago in the mists of my youth.
When hyenas come for Sita's cubs—and kill two of them—we don't witness the abductions. But we quail at the ghoulish noises they make as the moon rises above them, and we shiver at the sound of Sita's mournful cries as she looks in vain for them the next morning. So for very young and very sensitive viewers, that might be tough to handle.
Even in moments of loss, though, we're hardly in Old Yeller territory, as the film optimistically focuses on the fact that the rest of the young cats still have many days of hunting and running and playing before them. So optimistic is the film, in fact, that I couldn't help but marvel at the splendor of God's creation, which is on full, spectacular display. There are no agendas hidden here. No mentions of climate change or evolution. This story is all about the remarkable, resilient, resplendent big cats of the African plains.